Three proprietary cartridges face uncertain futures.
The .327 Federal Magnum (l.) may give the venerable .38 Special a run for its money while the .357 SIG (c.) and .45 GAP (r.)--attempts to improve on the 9mm and .45 ACP, respectively--face dim futures.
It's a dream of many a firearms experimenter: to develop a new cartridge and ultimately see it go mainstream. But when it comes to handguns, we don't have many options, as the basic requirement of being able to hold the gun in one hand imposes a rather severe limit on cartridges. And if said cartridge is one designed primarily for defensive purposes, the limit is even more stringent.
Still, that doesn't keep people from trying. Let's take a look at three cartridges--one fairly recent, two a bit less so--and see how their benefits and shortcomings affect their fate.
.327 Federal Magnum
Did you know that the third most popular chambering for the Colt Single Action Army in its heyday was the .32-20? That's right, a whole lot of cowboys packed a .32. The .32 faded when the .38 Special came along, and even the high-speed .32 loadings suffered in the marketplace--despite the fact that the .32-20 was the magnum of its day.
The .32 Long got a big brother back in the 1980s with the advent of the .32 H&R Magnum. The H&R was hampered by the decision to limit it in length and pressure and thus allow that company to chamber its top-break revolvers for it. It just didn't offer enough to be worth it.
The latest .32, the .327 Federal Magnum, suffers from no such limits. It has the cylinder length a .38 Special would take and runs at a max pressure of 45,000 psi. It does everything that its originators want, but I think that may actually be a strike against it.
When it was first introduced, I read more than one review that remarked "At last, a serious lady's defense .32." I disagree. As a handgun pistol that shoots the full equivalent of a 9mm +P load, this is not a beginner's cartridge.
The only advantage the .327 Federal Magnum offers for most shooters is one extra shot in a snubby. And for that you get full-force recoil and full-volume muzzle blast. Not a lot of shooters are willing to spend extra money on ammo (the .327 costs more than .38, no surprise there) and put up with blast and recoil for one extra shot.
My prediction: Once someone offers a midsize revolver, it will settle in as a niche small game and trail cartridge, with a good possibility of a long life. (Editor's note: Ruger has already done that with the introduction last year of a GP100 in .327. Having shot it, I think it would be a good home defense gun for just about anyone, as well as great for the uses Patrick mentions above.)
When expanding bullets actually began to perform, the exemplar of effectiveness was the .357 Magnum in its 125-grain JHP loading. It was widely reported to be a "95 percent one-shot stop" load. No 9mm offering came close. The .357/125 was lauded as effective when used from four- or six-inch barrels, where it delivered all of its nearly 1,400 fps velocity.
When many law enforcement departments went to 9mm, they tried to duplicate it. The ammo companies offered +P and +P+ loadings, but they could not match the velocity. Even at +P+ (for which there is not an officially designated pressure ceiling, just an agreement that if the companies would load it, the agencies wouldn't complain if it broke guns), the 9mm fell short.
One approach, when departments upgraded to .40 S&W, was to load 135-grain bullets in the .40, but that still wasn't enough. The only way to get better velocity out of the 9mm was to boost case capacity, so designers essentially necked down the .40 S&W to 9mm. It did boost a bullet to .357 Magnum velocities, but the combined forces of ballistics and real life conspired against it.
To fit the round into standard .40 magazines means a short bullet (and thus not a standard 9mm production bullet) and a short neck. In production, anything that deviates from the norm is bad. It means different tooling, and strict care has to be taken to keep from mixing up the bullets. Plus the short neck makes manufacture less forgiving.
The real-life problem came when people tried to use it. First, you gain velocity with longer barrels and lose it with shorter. Obvious, you say. Yes, except to an agency administrator who has spent more time getting a law degree and learning the ins and outs of the regulatory requirements of the job than in slapping cuffs on perps.
And so departments adopt the .357 SIG in pistols with four-inch barrels, Not only do they lose velocity, but the horrendous muzzle blast makes shooting more difficult, scores plummet, and if some people fail to qualify, then everyone in the department feels the pain.
Practice is expensive. Many departments use reloads to lower practice costs, but good luck finding a commercial reloader who will load up your once-fired .357 SIG brass. Many-times fired? Forget it. So you have to shoot factory-new all the time, and some officers and deputies simply can't shoot a passing score, no matter how much ammo you shovel at them.
The .357 SIG is perhaps the best example of too much of a good thing when it comes to handguns. My prediction: Once the federal agencies that still use it finally admit that someone made a mistake (probably after that particular someone retires) the .357 SIG will become a curiosity. And that's a shame because in a full-size gun, in the hands of someone who can shoot, it produces spectacular performance.
While the .357 SIG is a "too much" cartridge, the .45 GAP is a "too late" cartridge. The idea is simple: fit a .45 cartridge into a magazine tube that would otherwise hold a 9mm. That way you get a big-bore round in a small package.
Now if the .45 GAP (Glock Automatic Pistol) had come out when the .40 S&W was having teething problems in the early 1990s, things would have been different. The .40 got off to a rocky start, with some ammo lots blowing cases and with designers having to beef up the pistols because, well, you can't really just plop a .40 barrel into a 9mm, stuff in a stronger spring and expect everything to work.
But the concept had such promise that the makers moved heaven and Earth to make it work. By the time the .45 GAP came into being in 2003, the .40 was so well-established that there really wasn't any point.
Did it match the .45 ACP? Yes, but so what? By 2003 the lines had become so blurred thanks to advances in bullet expansion design that the caliber wars were pretty much over. Use what you want; the rea
l difference was in the pistol itself.
Those who had the .45 in mind wanted it in a 1911, and no Glock was going to lure them away. Those who were using the .40 were using it in pistols the exact same size as the comparable Glock, and they liked the extra capacity.
In the brother pistols G22 and G37, you have 15 and 10 rounds, respectively. I may really, really like the idea of a .45 pistol, but I don't see cutting capacity by a third to get it.
Had the .45 GAP been conceived contemporary with the .40, the world might have tipped in a GAP way. But now it does not offer an advantage. In fact, it is a compromise that takes the worst of both sides, and the initial enthusiasm for the .45 GAP has faded.
When it was first introduced, there were several handgun manufacturers that announced plans to introduce compact pistols in it. Since then all have dropped the idea, and it remains a Glock-only chambering.
A new handgun cartridge must offer more than existing ones do without exacting an excessive price to gain the advantage. It must fit in existing handguns, and it must be something that can be made from existing brass, bullets and powders. It's a tough task to come up with something new or even different, but it doesn't mean we'll stop trying.